The Role of Diet and the Gut in Mental Health

Terri Hirning

While the traditional mental health model focuses on brain function, neurotransmitters and potentially pharmaceutical medications, the ever burgeoning integrative mental health field understands there is more to it than that. Even mainstream media is starting to get the hint. Our gut influences our mind, emotions, cognition and mental health more than we've given it credit for in recent history. Whether we want to focus on the role food allergies play on mental health (1), (2) or how the gut-brain axis impacts our mental health (3), or even how the microbiome shapes our mental functioning (4) we can see the trend in research confirming what many integrative physicians and clinicians know: the gut matters

When we talk about the gut, we must cover diet. Some literature even suggests that a debilitating mental health disorder like Alzheimer's now be called "Type 3 Diabetes" (5) because of its links to certain kinds of foods and a generally poor diet. What is causing the alarming trend of food allergies, food sensitivities and the increase in auto-immune conditions? Is it GMO's? Is it Glyphosate (the herbicide used in products like Monsanto's Roundup)? Is it the prevalence of processed grains in our diets now? It may be all of thesethings, or none of these things, but as physicians and clinicians, the data suggests we take a closer look at our patients' diets and here are some things to consider:

Is there an underlying food allergy or multiple allergies? This can be an easy and yet very powerful place to start. Research shows that food allergies can indeed cause manifestations of mental health disorders. Running a simple IgG food allergy test from the Great Plains Laboratory, which also includes markers for Candida (harmful fungus in the gut) can be a great first step. More mainstream information on the treatment of Celiac disease can be also helpful in finding its connections to many mental health disorders like dementia, seizures, schizophrenia, etc.(6), and one does not have to be diagnosed with Celiac disease to be sensitive and reactive to gluten.

What about healthy gut function and microbiome population? Our microbiome is sensitive to our diets, and quickly reactive to changes. Looking at potential gut dysbiosis and the levels of beneficial flora in the gut is very important. An organic acids test will show you a wide range of metabolic markers, including several for bacteria (like Clostridia) and fungus (like Candida albicans) in the gut. If a patient has high levels of these, a course of treatment can be started to rid them of these invaders, possibly including dietary restrictions (like a low sugar, low carb diet) and adding helpful antibacterial or antifungal supplements. Then, to assess the beneficial bacteria in the gut, you may want to run a comprehensive stool analysis. This will help determine whether a patient needs to add a high-quality probiotic supplement to their diet and possibly increase his/her intake of probiotic-rich and fermented foods like kefir and sauerkraut.

Today's mental health disorders are very complex. Their treatment requires a well-rounded look at the many factors impacting the body and brain, including diet, lifestyle, the microbiome, and more. When an integrative approach is used and these many factors considered when creating a treatment plan, time and time again we see improvements in functioning and a reduction in clinical symptoms.

Clinical References:

  • Jackson J1, Eaton W2, Cascella N3, Fasano A4, Santora D5, Sullivan K6, Feldman S6, Raley H7, McMahon RP6, Carpenter WT Jr6, Demyanovich H6, Kelly DL8.Gluten sensitivity and relationship to psychiatric symptoms in people with schizophrenia Schizophr Res. (2014) Oct 10. pii: S0920-9964(14)00511-8. doi: 10.1016/j.schres.2014.09.023.
  • Genuis SJ1, Lobo RA2. Gluten sensitivity presenting as a neuropsychiatric disorder . Gastroenterol Res Pract. (2014);2014:293206. doi: 10.1155/2014/293206.
  • Nemani K1, Hosseini Ghomi R2, McCormick B3, Fan X3. Schizophrenia and the gut-brain axis. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. (2014) Sep 19;56C:155-160. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2014.08.018.
  • Severance EG1, Yolken RH2, Eaton WW3. Autoimmune diseases, gastrointestinal disorders and the microbiome in schizophrenia: more than a gut feeling. Schizophr Res. (2014) Jul 14. pii: S0920-9964(14)00319-3. doi: 10.1016/j.schres.2014.06.027.
  • De la Monte S, Wands J. Alzheimer's Disease Is Type 3 Diabetes–Evidence Reviewed. J Diabetes Sci Technol. (2008) 2(6): 1101–1113.
  • Velasquez-Manoff Moises (2014 October 12). Can Celiac Disease Affect the Brain? The New York Times. Retrieved from:http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/12/opinion/sunday/can-celiac-disease-affect-the-brain.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0